For LeBron James, the self-proclaimed King, success on the basketball court has become the expectation. The statistics speak for themselves: He’s been to seven straight NBA Finals, eight total, accounting for four MVPs and three Finals MVPs along the way. When James ends his career, his legacy will fall short only to that of the greatest basketball player of all-time, Michael Jordan. James’ talent is otherworldly and his greatness is obvious — even from the perspective of a rival Celtics fan.
All that being said: James should apologize to the city of Cleveland.
The kid from Akron, Ohio already incurred the ire of jersey-burning Cavalier fans when he left Cleveland to play with his friends in Miami. Leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers to join superstars Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade was undoubtedly the correct move to maximize his championship efforts, but broadcasting “The Decision” in front of millions of fans was an incredible misstep — as was his personal parade where he promised more than seven championships as a member of the Heat.
Cleveland fans and owner Dan Gilbert — after denouncing James publicly — got on their hands and knees, begging him to come back after his four years with the Heat yielded a 2-2 finals record. With Wade and Bosh declining and James somehow still ascending, James joined a Cavalier team with the number one overall pick and Kyrie Irving — one of the best young point guards in basketball.
And when the city of Cleveland won its first major sports championship in 52 years — thanks to a clutch Irving three-pointer in the final moments of Game 7 — James was again their hero, this time cementing his legendary status in Ohio.
Oh, how the Cavaliers have fallen from there. Cleveland is currently the three-seed in the Eastern Conference and is still the favorite to reach the finals, but the team is nowhere close to where it was two years ago. Irving — after not-so-subtly pronouncing his displeasure with James as a teammate and demanding a trade — is now on the rival Celtics, the number one seed. Tristan Thompson — whose rebounding single-handedly destroyed last-year’s Celtics team — is averaging just 5.2 points and 5.9 rebounds a game. And Irving’s replacement, 5-foot 9-inch Isaiah Thomas, is only hindering what has been the league’s second-worst defense (according to defensive efficiency rating). James brought in his friends Wade and Derrick Rose, whose contributions to the Cavaliers have been exceedingly minimal — and defensively detrimental. James himself is in the bottom half of the league in defensive rating, while five Celtics regulars crack the top 15.
But it’s not just on the court where the Cavaliers are losing. Irving’s saga with James has been well-documented, and his trade to the Celtics only fueled Cleveland’s most direct competition. After Gilbert correctly labelled “The Decision” a “narcissistic, self-promotional build-up” culminating in “shocking lack of disloyalty,” James has continually butted heads with the owner of his own team. One such instance was James’ insistence that Thompson be re-signed in 2015, which has resulted in one of the Cavaliers’ worst performers to be its second-highest paid player for the next three years.
A recent loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder — in which the Cavaliers gave up 148 points — sparked a players-only meeting which forced Kevin Love to defend the illness that forced him out of the game and practice the next day. James has routinely blamed Love during his time in Cleveland, even going so far as to subtweet him.
And in the midst of all that, James — after cleverly signing multiple short-term contracts with the Cavaliers — will become a free agent this summer, and early reports indicate that it is unlikely he will sign again with the Ohio team. But this time, it may lead to a mass exodus: Thomas’ contract is up in 2018 and JR Smith’s, Love’s and Thompson’s deals end in 2020. James’ 2017 complaint that the Cavaliers were not spending enough after their title win has created a situation in which the Cavaliers are on the hook for expensive expiring contracts even after James’ possible departure.
It may be argued that the Cavaliers are still in title contention, but losing two of their best three players next summer will decimate those chances for 2019. What is already a historically bad James-led team defense will be horrific, and Love — who has been the third fiddle for most of his time in Cleveland — will be charged with leading the offense. Not only that, but James’ current success will leave the Cavaliers a terrible draft pick that will make them unable to bet on a quick turnaround from the league’s basement like they were able to do after miraculously getting the first pick to snag Irving in 2011. It’s no wonder Dan Gilbert is reportedly looking to sell the team.
James may have finally brought a championship to Cleveland, but his public comments and unquestionable weight in the team’s decision-making has made the future of the Cavaliers after this season as bleak as it was the first time he left. The team has 16 days before the trade deadline to fix its roster for a championship run, which would likely be the only thing to convince James to stay in Cleveland. But that won’t happen, and James will likely take his talents to Venice Beach to soak up his final NBA moments in the sun on an actually successful franchise.
The obvious counterargument is that a perennially losing city like Cleveland would never have won a title without James coming back. But one has to wonder whether he could have built a dynasty if he had stayed in the first place — like all the other supposed “GOATs” of sports (Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, Lionel Messi, Mariano Rivera etc.).
And it now may be a century before the city of Cleveland wins a title again — because if any team will be further away from a championship than the Cavaliers after James deserts them in 2018, it’s the Browns.
Matt Brownsword ’18 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The only criticism on this column he’ll allow is Celtics fans questioning any positivity towards James and the Lakers.
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